Split Digraphs

What is a split digraph?

If you remember your grammar lessons you will know that split infinitives are not allowed.  However this is not the case for split digraphs.  In fact they are extremely common, and children learn them very early on in their school career (my son was explaining them to me when he was four years old!)

Split digraphs are actually what they say on the tin.  A digraph (i.e. one sound / two letters) split in two.  They are a bit tricky to learn, and to explain, but obviously very important.  

What is a split diagraph?  Is it different to a split digraph?
I believe the correct spelling in the UK is "digraph."  "Dia" doesn't make sense to me since "digraph" comes from the Greek and means double ("di") letter/writing ("graph").  As "dia" means through, diagraph would mean "through the letter".  So "digraph" should be the correct spelling everywhere!  If you see "split diagraph" the person writing probably means a split digraph.  
For example the "a" and "e" in "made" (or "bake" or "take", etc) are, together, a split digraph.  It is often written as 'a_e' or 'a - e'.  Words with the ae split digraph in might be referred to as "a_e words" or "ae words".  Remember the 'a' actually changes its sound because of the "e" so its not just a silent 'e'.  Think  of the difference between how you say "kit" and 'kite' (the split digraph being "i_e") as a good example of how the second part of the split digraph changes the sound.  Or going back to the first example, think of how you say 'made' and how you say 'mad'.

The easiest way to think of split digraphs is that they are two letters that make one sound that are separated (or "split") by a single consonant. 

How to teach split digraphs

The u_e flashcard from Jolly Phonics
The u_e flashcard from Jolly Phonics

The key to teaching split digraphs is to teach them like any other digraph, or letter sound.  So, to begin with, show your child the split digraph and teach them how to say it.  For example:  "An a followed by an e is pronounced ay (as in made) instead of ah (as in cat)."  Teach them the word split digraph and explain that "a" followed by another letter followed by "e" (often at the end of the word) is a split digraph..  They learn the term at school in Reception or Year 1, so it is good to reference it at home.
Flash cards are great for this as they will normally show you the "a_e", "o_e", "i_e", "e_e" or "u_e" as a sound, and also in words.  Tell them another letter will go in between.

Teaching The Digraph On It's Own

The usual way of teaching a letter / digraph / split digraph is:
  • Get them to recognise it (perhaps by asking them where is the "u" and "e" split digraph?)
  • Get them to say it, even if it is repeating it after you.
  • Get them to say it more independently
  • Practice, practice, practice!

Teaching Split Digraphs In Words

The Cube flashcard from Jolly Phonics.  Notice how there is a dot beneath the "u" but not the "e".  This indicates a split digraph, and helps give a hint to your child.
The Cube flashcard from Jolly Phonics. Notice how there is a dot beneath the "u" but not the "e". This indicates a split digraph, and helps give a hint to your child.
Once they can recognise the split digraph independently, it's time to recognise it in words; again you can use flashcards.  Here it is slightly more tricky than with a normal letter or digraph since you now have another letter in between.  I would recommend using flash cards, like Jolly Phonics again.
Flashcards help here because the flashcard itself will have a hint that there is a split digraph there.  This is always useful for practising as your child is learning the split digraph  Keep practicing with flash cards, but don't use all the flash cards for a particular split digraph in one go.  Do a couple at a time - you want to make sure they are not just memorising the word, but that they can read the phonics. 
Magic 'e' words
Sometimes the "e" in the split digraph is described as a "magic e".  The magic e often comes at the end of a word changes the sound of the vowel two letters back and is itself silent - so it is "magical".   Words with a split digraph can then be called "magic e words".  Personally I find this harder to explain as you have to get into explaining what letter the e is changing the sound of.  It's much easier, for me at least, to think of a split digraph making a particular sound..  But hey whatever works - if your child doesn't get the split digraph you can always try the "magic e"
If need be, tell them that there is a split digraph there.  Maybe don't tell them anything more; see if with that "hint" they can get it.  The "hinting" there is a split digraph can continue even when they are reading from a book, especially if they make a mistake and don't recognise it.  For example for "hive", an i_e word, if they say "hiv-eh" tell them they've missed something, wait, then tell them they've missed a split digraph, then tell them it is an i_e split digraph.  
Of course it's always better to hint rather than give the answer away, whatever you are teaching, as it helps your child to think a bit for themselves.

Examples of Split Digraphs In Words

It's always useful to have some examples, so I've provided you with some of the common words with split digraphs - just for practice!
a_e words
Words with the ae split digraph include:
  • take
  • made
  • gate
  • lane
Words ending in ame are normally quite easy to pronounce and there is a great selection:
  • game
  • tame
  • came
  • lame
  • name
Watch out for "have" and similar words.  This is not a true split digraph word but is a tricky word (as the "a" doesn't change sound).  It needs to be learnt.
Tricky Words
 If your child mispronounces a word, but correctly followed the phonics rules make sure you are clear with them.  Say, for example, "You were correct to say that as you hadn't seen the word before, but it is a tricky word and is pronounced like this .."  It's important the tricky word doesn't mess up the phonics rules in their head.
i_e words
Words with the ie split digraph include:
  • mine
  • like
  • hide
  • ire
Be careful of words like "give".  This doesn't have a split digraph as the "i" doesn't change its sound.  This is a tricky word and just needs to be learnt.

o_e words
Words with the oe split digraph include:
  • cove
  • rode
  • lone
  • ode
Watch out for words like "love" or "move".  These don't have a split digraph as although the "o" can change its sound (depending on your accent), it doesn't make an "oh" sound, and so these are tricky words that just need to be learnt..  
u_e words
words with the split digraph ue are less common than a_e words, i_e words or o_e words, so I would suggest teaching them afterwards.  Examples include:
  • cube
  • amuse
  • excuse
Other Terms - Split Vowel Digraph
All split digraphs are split vowel digraphs (or just vowel digraphs).  This is because they make a vowel sound, not because they are made of vowels!
Words like "due" or "argue" don't have the ue split digraph, because they are not split.  These are just normal ue digraph words (the ue digraph and the u_e split digraph happen to make the same sound but aren't the same).
e_e words
e_e words are not very common to begin with when reading and tend to be more "advanced".  I would suggest teaching the split digraph ee last.  Here are some examples of words with e_e
  • gene
  • meme
  • phoneme

Where to go from here?

If your child knows most of their letter sounds, and some normal digraphs (like "oa") then they can start learning split digraphs.  Pick one, for example "a_e", buy or make some flash cards and start teaching it, perhaps in the way I explained above, or if you have another way that worked for other digraphs / letters - try that!


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